Times are changing. When I mentioned to friends I was going Sussex forest bathing, it was met with universal approval and a sense of envy. I’m pretty sure that even a couple of years, the reaction would have been different, and I would have been accused of being woo woo. And if one of the positives to come out of Covid and lockdown is that we’ve developed a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of nature in our daily lives, is forest bathing the antidote to the pressures of modern living?
The what and the where
The forest bathing event I joined was organised through The Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst, held at St Anne’s Hill and run by Helena Skoog. Helena is a yoga instructor who grew up in the forests of Sweden and lives off grid in ancient woodlands in East Sussex. Her gentle voice is as soothing as nature itself as she explains that the term forest bathing is derived from a Japanese tradition called Shinrin-Yoku (immersing yourself in the forest), a type of mindful meditation.
Some of us in our small group may have arrived a little frazzled having had the usual Monday morning complications to attend to: the school run, rush hour traffic, last-minute urgent emails. But even before we had entered the forest, Helena had unobtrusively brought us to a gentle pause as we reconnected with our breath and the sound of birdsong. We packed away our stresses and anxieties by attributing them to an object (a twig, a stone, a dandelion) and handed them to Helena before the serious business of forest bathing begun.
St Anne’s Hill
St Anne’s Hill is a very short walk from The Spread Eagle and it’s a rather special place. This is where we were headed and where I learnt my first lesson, namely that you don’t have to travel miles and seek out a vast and remote forest to enjoy forest bathing. More or less anywhere with trees will do, making West Sussex a perfect place for some forest bathing.
The circular mound at the top of St Anne’s Hill was the site of a motte and bailey Norman castle. In the 12th century, the original wood castle was replaced with a stone one. The castle fell into disuse by the late 13th / early 14th century but the striking foundations of the keep, hall house and chapel remain. They are strangely evocative. In amongst the ruins grow a number of majestic trees, and you can just make out the sound of the River Rother, the polo fields of the Cowdray Estate and the Cowdray ruins. It feels quite mystical, and as we enter via the gate at the bottom, Helena urges us to acknowledge we’re moving through a portal into a very special place. She certainly isn’t wrong.
Our forest bathing took a number of different forms. We lie on our backs for a while under the canopy of trees in amongst the ruins, as Helena guides us through a meditation, and reminds us how to listen to the world around us. We ground ourselves by stepping out into the universe above us, by diving into the minute world of roots, and tiny organisms beneath us and by connecting with the four corners of the compass. We explore. It’s a very sensory experience as we tune into our surroundings. We connect with the trees by touching and hugging (if you want) and we converse with mother nature. If you asked me to create a shrine to the earth out of twigs on any other day I might have knocked you back but in this environment, it’s strangely compelling.
With no pressing agenda or need to accomplish anything, the two hours we spent at St Anne’s had a personal impact that feels tangible.
There is an increasing body of research that shows that forest bathing can have a positive effect on our nervous system, blood pressure, heart rate, mood and immune system and the effects of a session like ours can be felt for up to 30 days. From a personal perspective, I felt calm and relaxed but empowered with a renewed sense of confidence and purpose. It felt profoundly luxurious to spend time in the forest doing nothing but forest bathing is of course one of the most simple and most straightforward of experiences: just sitting with nature.
As we head back for lunch in the sunshine at The Spread Eagle, Helena invites us to take back the troubles we’d packaged up earlier. I decline. I’ve got to head back to the office but I’m already looking forward to spending more time with trees. So if you’re wondering whether something quite so simple as forest bathing could be the antidote to our frenetic lifestyles, why not give it a go?
The Spread Eagle Forest Bathing Experience costs £38 and includes a two-hour session and a two-course lunch at The Spread Eagle with a forest-inspired “softail”.
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For more information or to book visit: https://www.hshotels.co.uk/spread-eagle/offers/events/forest-bathing